For the last six months or so, I’ve been taken guitar classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. Growing up, I loved listening to music, reading about music, and talking about music. However, I couldn’t play music. I never really took to a musical instrument growing up. It would make sense to assume I knew how to play at least one instrument, but that was not the case.
In early 2014, I changed jobs from one where I had absolutely no free time to a job that had normal hours and provided me with adequate leisure time. I realized something after that transition. I did not have any hobbies that I enjoyed doing. For nearly three years, I was working 60-70 hours a week and was so exhausted in my off time that I didn’t take time for myself. Ultimately, this was quite alarming for me.
After some time, I decided that I wanted to learn an instrument. Though, I didn’t know what I wanted to learn. Immediately, I blew off the notion of learning guitar simply because that is everyone’s first instrument. I wanted to be different and learn something more esoteric just because it would be different. I couldn’t afford classes yet, so I promised myself I would have my mind made up by the time I saved up enough to take a course. Classes at Old Town are nearly $200 for an 8-week course. My new job didn’t pay as well, so I was intimidated about spending so much money on something for fear I would just give up on it. I’m a practical and pragmatic person, but I wasn’t sure if I could be committed to something enough to want to spend that much money unless it was a sure bet. I personally felt that I wouldn’t learn how to play anything all that well, would become frustrated by my inability to get better, and just give up However, I set that goal to have the money saved up and at least try out one course.
Things changed a lot that summer and I had to postpone taking classes. Within one week, my job’s Chicago office laid the entire staff off and I moved out of my girlfriend’s place after we broke up. I’m a very responsible person and take measures to make sure I can take care of myself. Expenditures like guitar classes would have to wait while I focused on finding work and taking low-paying temp assignments for the foreseeable future.
When one of my temp jobs became a permanent position when the company hired me, the idea of taking classes resurfaced. However, I still couldn’t justify spending so much money for something I doubted I would be any good at. Due to the fact my recent temp assignments didn’t pay all that well, I had to focus on saving money. I was talking to a friend of mine about learning an instrument and they told me that volunteers at Old Town could take classes. I used to work so much with no time to focus on other things I was passionate about. My new job had normal hours. I like staying busy and with all this new free time, I could somehow make that time work for me. I looked into it and set an appointment to attend a volunteer orientation. The idea was that I could volunteer to not only build up my resume, but also help me reconcile with the money issue but working towards a class using volunteer discounts.
I’ve been volunteering at Old Town for nearly a year. Since I started, I’ve been working every week in their resource center; a vast collection of twenty-thousand records, CDs, and books. I was surrounded by music and could play anything I wanted. And after seven weeks, I could earn the maximum discount. This worked well because I could earn that discount by the time the course finished it’s eight week run. Volunteering meant I would be working towards something instead of just flippantly spending money. This made me appreciate things and wanted to learn an instrument even more because I had put more effort into things. It felt like something I earned rather than something I bought.
Despite my early bias, I ended up picking guitar as my first instrument. After all, there is a reason why it is nearly everyone’s first instrument, right? Last night, I participated in the student showcase on behalf of the Guitar II course; the third course in Old Town’s guitar program following Guitar I and Guitar 1 Repertoire. In these class, we strengthened our work on riffs carried over from lesson in Guitar 1 Repertoire as well as becoming introduced to the capo and alternate bass strumming (think Johnny Cash’s playing style). For the showcase, we chose to either play “Country Roads” by John Denver to show off our alternate bass skills, or “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees because of it’s riff and two different Bm chord styles. The class picked “Daydream Believer.”
When I was in high school, I loved listening to the Monkees. My mother burned me a copy of Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. that I listened to repeatedly. I knew they had a reputation of being a silly, TV band. I didn’t care. I was impressed with their cartoonish charm. When I went to college, they fell off my radar. These things happen. Though when we started to practice the song in class, I began to appreciate the music again. Before, I was the casual listener. The harmonies, psychedelic riffs, and rock rhythms were all I needed and it was fine because I was really listening. Now fifteen years later, things were different. I knew the songs. I couldn’t forget them because I could replay them in my head. But now, with the chord sheet in front of me, it was like I was experiencing the song for the first time again.
Davy Jones leads the vocals on “Daydream Believer,” but I wouldn’t dare sing it. I don’t fancy myself a good singer and either way, I was there to learn guitar. The horns that make up the riff between the verse and chorus on the track had been translated to individually picking G and B strings with specific fret placement. Even the lyrics changed for me. I think you tend to understand more of something when you play it yourself than when someone is doing it for you. What always sounded like a lilting, fluffy love song to me before carried more poetry when I was learning the song’s moving parts as if each word had a specific purpose or weight. Whenever I listened to a musician talk about learning a song and breaking down it’s parts, I finally understood now.
I often joke about how terrible I am at the guitar after a couple of classes. The truth is, I’m not that bad. I am where I should be. I’m still a beginner but I’ve made a lot of noticeable improvement since I first started. Playing the song was an incredibly fun experience. We performed on Old Town’s main stage that has hosted several decades of amazing talent including Patti Smith, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Steve Martin, Pete Seeger, and so many more. I had walked on the stage before, but not like this. I wasn’t nervous (which is rare for me). I was completely relaxed and in sync with the song in the same way I listened to it as a kid with my eyes closed on the school bus or on my bed.
I’m eager to see what the rest of the program has in store for me. I wish I had learned to play earlier, but part of me is glad I didn’t. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for the challenge. Perhaps I needed to get comfortable with things. A lot had disruptions had entered my life and I had to set my priorities. Things are great and I’m happy with the direction I’m going. I’m busy a lot and don’t get a lot of alone time, so it does get exhausting. However, I have to get it where I can because something can always come up and put a halt to your plans. Life happens. Until then, I’ll just be monkeying around and too busy singing to put anybody down.